Empowering Sudanese civilians to be a voice for change

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An interviewer engaged with a Sudanese civilian about their experiences in wars. Photo provided.
An interviewer engaged with a Sudanese civilian about their experiences in wars. Photo provided.

Following decades of war and genocide in Sudan, in April 2019 a mass movement from civilians overthrew the dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir. As the country transitions to democratic rule, George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution is working to empower civilians to use their voice to impact the future.

The Mason team, working with partners in Sudan, has been interviewing and video recording oral histories of 100 Sudanese civilians who have lived through both war and peace. Their answers, which expand upon their experiences, also include their vision for a just Sudanese society.

“A lot of times the leadership of a country, even if they’re driven by high moral values, forget or ignore what civilians want,” said Carter School Professor Daniel Rothbart, who is co-leading the project with Professor Karina Korostelina. “This is an attempt to give them power and agency in determining the nation’s future.”

Daniel Rothbart
Daniel Rothbart

After the narratives are compiled, the team will present the findings to the leaders of Sudan’s transitional government in summer 2021, Rothbart said, with the hope that they take civilian requests into account.

“One of the ways to address dilemmas of justice and reconciliation is dealing with collective memory,” Korostelina said. “That’s why this project’s scope is bigger than just a collection of memories—it’s finding ways, methodologically and theoretically, of how to address the growing need for justice, and at the same time create more tolerance and reconciliation in society.”

Carter School PhD student Beltina Gjeloshi has been on the project since 2019, helping refine ideas, develop partnerships, manage communications abroad and assist with data analysis.

“This project is meaningful to me for many reasons,” she said. “I get to put into action conflict resolution research principles and practice in a real-world scenario; I’m developing relationships with experts in the field—an essential part of any conflict resolution work—and last, but not least, I am one small part of greater efforts to make a positive difference for the people of Sudan.”

Those positive effects may extend beyond politics, Rothbart said, as legitimizing Sudanese experiences could be beneficial psychologically. It may also inspire members of other countries who are facing the aftermath of large-scale conflict to be a voice for change.

Karina Korostelina
Karina Korostelina

The interviews, conducted by natives of Sudan who understand the culture and experiences of the people, are slated to be publicly available through Mason’s Special Collections Research Center in Spring 2022. They will be a valuable resource for teachers and students nationwide.

Moving forward, the team plans to apply for grants to develop accompanying teaching modules, and create similar oral histories in other countries, such as Ukraine, that have experienced war.

“We believe our results will help inform programming with multiple international organizations, local NGOs, in addition to government work,” Korostelina said.

The stories will be difficult, but important, to hear.

“One of the great contributions to the world is the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s oral history of Holocaust survivors,” Rothbart said. “This is comparable with respect that these people being interviewed, many of them survived horrific violence and their testimony needs to be accessible to the world.”